Remembering the Farm, the Oklahoma Commune Where Red Dirt Music was Born

There is no sign or marker for the Farm. Like the music it gave birth to, the Farm's past exists largely in oral history bordering on legend and mythos.

Part party house, part Okie artist commune, the Farm was a gathering place for Red Dirt musicians in the 1980s and 1990s, a place to work on their craft and trade ideas. What started at a farmhouse outside Stillwater, Oklahoma, eventually changed Texas country music, as alumni of the Farm scene went south of the Red River looking for gigs.

In town, many Stillwater residents have their own stories about days-long parties and fireside guitar-picking, and they can tell the curious how to get there. The six-bedroom farmhouse burned down in 2003, but echoes of the Farm's heyday remain on the property. A fire pit in the front yard shows signs of recent life. Makeshift seating encircles the site of raging bonfires that once burned all night and into the early morning.

Still standing beyond the circle is a weathered frontier-era carriage house that was converted into a homemade concert stage called the "Gypsy Café," which years ago hosted impromptu performances where music wafted across pasturelands for miles on a clear night.

When John Cooper and Danny Pierce first pulled up the gravel driveway in 1979 as college students, they were just looking for a place to live and have a good time. Rent was a hundred bucks a month at the six-bedroom farmhouse, which sat alongside other buildings on 160 acres. The price never went up in 20 years.

As roommates changed, Pierce was the constant and caretaker of the Farm until 1998, when he moved with his wife to Tennessee to become a college professor. Over the years, he estimates, he had 100 different roommates, and many more who crashed on a couch or lawn chair for a few nights.

"It was a college guys place," Cooper says. "It was a place to live and party. And being just far enough out of town, the cops left us alone."

Over time the Farm became a well-known but unofficial gathering place for students from Oklahoma State University, which draws kids from rural outposts as well as cities like Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Dallas. In town, bars would announce at closing, "Time to leave; party at the Farm."

"I think the thing about Stillwater, in particular, is ... its geography," Cooper says. "It's over an hour to Tulsa, over an hour to Oklahoma City. You couldn't just jump in your car and go. We always called it 'creating our own fun.'"

Students who grew up listening to Merle Haggard mixed with those who brought Rolling Stones records to school with them. That mix of people, isolated from the options of big cities, helped create what Cooper and others call "a weird musical vortex." Actor Gary Busey played in a popular Stillwater-based country group in the '60s. Garth Brooks cut his teeth in local venues before heading to Nashville. The All-American Rejects called Stillwater home and, more recently, the indie group Other Lives, also from Stillwater, spent part of 2012 opening for Radiohead.

When Cooper moved to the Farm, he says, he didn't know he was a musician. But at some point he picked up the mandolin and formed the Red Dirt Rangers with his friends. As the reputation of the Farm grew in the early 1980s, musicians and songwriters from the locally grown Red Dirt scene started gravitating to the farmhouse.

"Tons of bands got formed from there; songs got written there," Cooper says. "It was just a place to build a fire, get out the beer and whatever else you had and the party was on. It started to evolve around music. It got to the point where when bands would come to town, they'd stay at the Farm."

Jimmy LaFave, one of the early creators of Red Dirt music, frequented the Farm in the early '80s. It gave him and others a place to stay with like minds and create.

"We were pretty much the odd bunch of hippies in a farmhouse on the edge of town: part Woody Guthrie, part Jack Kerouac, part Bob Dylan," LaFave says. "We were all out there, almost like the counter-counterculture just doing our thing out there in the farmhouse. It was just a magical era and time of creativity."

The first usage of "Red Dirt" as a genre was by Steve Ripley, who like LaFave was one of the early musicians in the scene. Ripley headed a Stillwater band called Moses, and the group chose the label name "Red Dirt Records" when they self-published a 1972 live album.

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Ricky O'Bannon